Infinity in a grain of sand

When I started graduate school in Zoology one of my courses was in Entomology, the study of insects. I had to make an insect collection covering all the major groups before the term started, and so spent a number of enjoyable weekends at my wifeís parentsí cottage, swooping down like the Angel of Death on butterflies, beetles and bugs. A particular vacant lot was my main haunt and I soon discovered that one gets better at finding insects with practice. A first walk through might yield nothing more than a few showy butterflies - but with patience and careful looking huge numbers of creatures would appear.

My favorite search was for praying mantises. These elongated stick-like insects are beautifully camouflaged, both in form and in the subtle combinations of colors they display. The young are often grass green, matching perfectly the verdant June hues of the field. By August the adults have taken on the sere brown tints of autumn grasses and can be surprisingly difficult to pick out, even though they are much the biggest insects in the field. Time and concentration would however sharpen my eyes until at last I could pick out a mantis in a tenth the time it originally took.

Later I studied predatory creatures and learned that they often have the same skill - that of developing a "search image" of their prey. To a frog, much of the world is a blur, but the fly whizzing past stands out sharply. The more an animal hunts one particular kind of prey, the better a search image it develops - and thus becomes a more efficient hunter.

I was reminded of my mantis search images recently. My 9 year old daughter sees mantises in the field frequently and has to point them out to me. Iíve forgotten my search image for part because Iím so busy searching for interesting plants. Iíve been enjoying picking out the multitudinous kinds of fall asters which have begun now (at the beginning of September) to bloom in that very same lot, which is now my country garden. Much of this garden is simply whatever wildflowers choose to grow. The royal tapestry of goldenrod gold and aster purple is now weaving itself.

First to bloom were the New England asters, Aster novae-angliae. These I believe to be the main ancestors of our garden Michaelmas daisies, and they are the most abundant and the earliest purple aster in our fields. They are not yet in full bloom, but the occasional flower is now open with the promise of many more for the cool mornings of late September. The final moment of glory in my country garden comes as the leaves begin to turn red and gold above a sea of violet aster.

Almost unnoticed amongst the robust foliage of the New England aster was another aster with amazingly delicate stems and thin leaves. Instead of forming giant clumps, this aster forms open sprays. Finally the first flowers have begun to open and I can confirm that itís the New York aster, A. novae-belgiae, whose Latin and common names capture between them the passage of power from the Dutch settlers of Nieuw Amsterdam to the English usurpers of New York. Why donít we find this aster, with its interesting foliage form, more in our gardens? Whatever the answer, Iíve developed a search image of its narrow leaves and wiry stems now and go about searching it out to see what variety of colors the flowers will take as they open.

The Yankee asters, as I call them, are some of the tallest ones in my garden. Other more delicate violet asters grow here, such as the Bushy aster, A. dumosus, which lives up to its name in the sandy soil near the beach. This has indeed been used as the parent of some garden hybrids, no doubt in part for its more compact form. Its multitude of tiny almost needle-like leaves on a much-branched stem is distinctive. Even more delicate form and flower are found on some of the white asters. A. ericoides, the heath aster, gets its name from the leaves, like the tiny leaves of a heather, and produces a profusion of tiny white flowers on lower sprawling stems.

We tend to see a plant and pigeonhole it simply - "thatís an aster" or "thatís a goldenrod". It can be fascinating and rather humbling to walk through our fall fields and woods and try to count the literally dozens of kinds of each with which Ontario is so abundantly blessed. It certainly sharpens the eye; and perhaps youíll be rewarded by catching a glimpse of a brown stick suddenly transforming into the D-movie alien shape of a mantis.

Even if youíve never hunted mantises nor counted aster subspecies, Iíll bet youíve developed some mean search images for weeds. Have you ever started weeding your garden by telling yourself "Iíll just pull out that one clover plant", only to come to your senses hours later and yards away, with mounds of wilting weeds heaped up on the lawn or sidewalk? If so, youíve probably noticed how the weeds of one type seem to multiply as you pull them out. Sometimes I canít believe that Iíve missed so many clover (or plantains, or spurge, or ...) when Iíve just weeded a patch. Whatís happening of course is not spontaneous generation but a gradual sharpening of my clover (plantain, spurge) search image. While this can make me an efficient clover hunter, it sometimes means that I entirely pass over other kinds of weeds because my eye only sees the clover.

After a stint of weed hunting, the weed search images can become so overpowering that itís hard to simply sit back and enjoy the garden. Oneís eyes persist in searching for fugitive clovers, rather than relaxing to enjoy the overall view. At times like this I find my myopia an asset. I can take off my glasses, and perforce I must look at the overall drifts of colors and forms, as I can no longer make out the shapes of the weeds. When I put the glasses back on I must rigorously force myself not to start weed hunting again. Of course, I know there are many amazing gardeners among my fellow Hort members who actually can come to the end of their weeds after a finite amount of time, but this never seems to happen to me, so I must cultivate a certain Zen detachment from the worldly process of weeding to finally actually see my garden, not just its component plants.

Not being able to see the forest for the weeds has been a problem for me on the beach this summer. Our beach mixes three colors of sand, every grade of gravel from dust to stones, and a glacial grab bag of rocks of every type and color. In other summers the act of searching for fossils has at times taken over so completely that I could walk a kilometer of beach without noticing waves, clouds, or blue sky. However, this summer the dominating search image has been for bits of twisted rusty wire.

Some years ago high levels of Lake Huron threatened steps and decks by the beach. Large numbers of wire baskets were filled with rocks and woven shut with more wire, to break the force of the waves. Now, years later, the waves are gradually tearing apart the baskets and distributing small, exceedingly pointy bits of rusty metal in the sand, waiting for an unwary foot.

Every morning as I went jogging on the beach I collected this flotsam. Soon my search image was so good I was walking rather than jogging and bringing back a sandy harvest of toe-puncturers. I realized I was in trouble the day I set out to look at some particularly beautiful patterns of black and tan sand bedded upon each other by the previous nightís waves, only to catch myself moments later ignoring the sand pictures in a search for rusty bits.

This tale of mantises, asters, weeding and wires ends in a plea. A strong focus on the specific, an good search image if you like, makes us efficient and effective in our everyday lives. This is necessary, but limiting. We must also see the fields, the gardens, the beaches, even if we must remove our glasses to do so and stumble about inefficiently. And only when we have retrained ourselves to see the forest, not just the trees, should we put our glasses back on and

See Infinity in a grain of sand
And Eternity in a wildflower.



Clement Kent


Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t